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We Catch up with the Sedgefield-Born Talent Behind New ABBA-Themed Show

Ian Hallard & Mark Gatiss © Darren Bell Ian Hallard & Mark Gatiss © Darren Bell
What's on
March 2023
Reading time 4 Minutes

Of Doctor Who, Sherlock and Game of Thrones fame, Sedgefield-born writer, director and producer Mark Gatiss and his husband, actor and writer Ian Hallard, share their career highlights and thoughts on theatre ahead of their new touring ABBA-themed show

Mark is a man of many talents, but he's maybe best known as a member of the sketch comedy team The League of Gentlemen and as the co-creator and executive producer of the BBC series Sherlock - fans of that show will recognise him as Mycroft Holmes. He has written for and appeared in Doctor Who, and was the writer and executive producer of An Adventure in Space and Time for its 50th anniversary celebrations.

To add to that impressive list, he co-created the BBC and Netflix drama Dracula, has writing credits for television's Poirot, and he curated and directed Queers - a series of eight monologues for BBC Four to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act.

You’ll have spotted him starring in Mission Impossible 7, Operation Mincemeat, The Father, The Favourite, Christopher Robin, Gunpowder, Wolf Hall and Game of Thrones, and in plenty of stage shows too. He most recently directed Steven Moffat’s debut play The Unfriend for Chichester Theatre, which has transferred to the Criterion Theatre in the West End.

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Mark was born in Sedgefield and grew up there and in Trimdon, before his dad became an engineer at the School Aycliffe Mental Hospital in Heighington. Being so close to Darlington enabled him to follow his dreams in theatre, and in 1983 he got the role of Dad in Tony Stowers’ comedy The Waiting Room in Darlington. ‘Darlington was the closest big town to where I grew up,’ Mark says. ‘I had a lovely upbringing and I travel up there as often as I can to see my brother and cousin. I was there just before Christmas. You can’t take the North out of us, can you?

‘I was always very much encouraged to write when I was in school. There were some very encouraging teachers, one of whom I’m still in touch with actually. I went to a drama school in Yorkshire which is where I met the rest of The League of Gentlemen and that was the beginning of acting for me. I’m very proud of The League, and Sherlock was a huge part of my career too. Plus writing and appearing in Doctor Who, which has always been my favourite show; being a part of that when Russell T Davies brought it back 18 years ago (but it actually feels like actually five minutes ago) was a huge thing for me.’

Mark Gatiss with cast © Darren Bell Mark Gatiss with cast © Darren Bell

When Mark was making The League of Gentlemen, Ian wasn’t long out of drama school and the two actually met online (which they kept quiet at the time, because it was nowhere near as common back then as it is now). While he’s been involved in plenty of theatre shows including The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for West Yorkshire Playhouse (now Leeds Playhouse), Ian’s TV credits include Doctor Who, Sherlock, The Crown and Doctors. He’s also written and been script associate on three episodes of Poirot. ‘I’d done some script editing and worked with Mark for a couple of years on various projects and people had often asked: have you ever thought about writing a play?,’ Ian says. ‘So I decided to give it a go. They say write what you know, and so I decided to write a play about ABBA.’

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Ian’s referring to his new play, The Way Old Friends Do, which he has written (and is starring in) and which Mark has directed. In 1988, two school friends tentatively come out to each other; one as gay, and one as an ABBA fan. Three decades later, they meet by chance and decide to form the world’s first ABBA tribute band – in drag. ‘You can expect a very funny, touching and heart-warming two-hour show,’ Ian says. ‘They put the band together, hold auditions, rehearse and then take it out on the road – but the wheels come off slightly. It’s the journey of the band but also the journey of their friendship and the ups and downs. There’s a lot for anyone who likes ABBA but it’s about being a fan. Even if you’re not into ABBA specifically, everyone’s a fan of something and that level of devotion you might feel towards a band, a TV show or a football team – we’ve all got it. That was a really fun thing to explore.’

‘Even if you’re not into ABBA specifically, everyone’s a fan of something and that level of devotion you might feel towards a band, a TV show or a football team – we’ve all got it’

Following a season at Birmingham Rep at the start of the year, The Way Old Friends Do (which features the voices of Miriam Margolyes and Paul O’Grady), is now on a tour of the UK. It played Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre from 7th–11th March and will end the tour at York Theatre Royal from 6th–10th June.

Mark has noticed a change in the arts industry but hopes to see an improvement post-Covid. ‘It’s become a very challenging environment,’ he explains. ‘When I was a kid we used to go to Newcastle often to see the RSC who used to tour all their big shows up North, and a lot of those things have gone now. That’s because arts funding has continually been throttled and diminished, and because we had a succession of governments who don’t really value the arts. Having said that, there’s still an awful lot of amazing stuff going on in the North, but post-Covid it’s very uncertain. Trying to get people back into live venues is proving challenging, but I’m ever optimistic.’


Your favourite place to walk?
Mark: I’m very fond of Middleton-in-Teesdale, and always forget but whenever I go to places like Staindrop – they’re just so beautiful. I was there a couple of Christmases ago and I’d forgotten how exquisite it is.

An item you couldn’t live without?
Mark: Dogs aren’t really an item, but we couldn’t live without dogs!
Ian: I’d say my ABBA collection, but of course it’s all on Spotify now so I can just listen to it there.

A book, series or podcast you recommend?
Ian: The podcast I’ve listened to most over the last few years used to be called Remainiacs but now it’s called Oh God, What Now?. It has been a very welcome point of feeling like I’m not the only person in the world frustrated by what’s going on in politics and the world around us. I listen to it when I walk the dog and they’ve got some brilliant conversations on it. For TV, Friends probably.
Mark: I’ve not heard of that, is it new?!
Ian: It still makes me laugh every time I watch it. It’s brilliant.
Mark: I’m a big fan of the podcast called The Secret History of Hollywood. It’s an amazing thing; a proper deep dive into old movies. Some of them are hours long! I listen to them when I’m running and for anyone who likes old films this is a remarkable podcast. We’ve just finished season one of White Lotus which we rather enjoyed too.

Another North East or Yorkshire-born (-or based) actor you’d love to work with?
Mark: Alun Armstrong was always one of my heroes, and we’ve only ever done one thing together so it would be nice to do something else with Alun; that’s been a long time coming. And John Woodvine; he’s 93 and he’s just appeared in a new film called Enys Men. I was a huge fan of his when I was a kid and he’s still going strong.

Is there a quote that inspires you?
Ian: ‘Without a song or a dance, what are we?’
Mark: Very good! ‘Ninety percent of success in life is just showing up,’ – Woody Allen.

Advice you’d give your younger self?
Ian: Care less about what other people think of you. I’ve become a bit less concerned about that as time has gone by. I was brought up to be a terribly polite young man, and to not rock the boat. But I think sometimes the danger is you go too far the other way and get taken advantage of. I think there’s a healthy balance and I would encourage myself to be a little more assertive when I was younger.
Mark: That’s very true! I would agree with that.

Tips for budding actors or writers?
Mark: I always say the same thing, which is to persist. It might sound easy to say when you’ve had a certain measure of success but most people just give up. People make excuses like ‘I could’ve written a novel’, but actually you have to put the work in to get there. It’s about really focusing on it. There’s a huge measure of luck, of course there is, but just keeping at it is the best advice I could give.
Ian: I think that sums it up really. Just give it a go! I think some people are scared of trying and failing and if you do that then you’ll never know. I’d always say who knows whether it will work; 98 percent of actors are unemployed at any given time but at least you’ve given it a go. You’ve got to be in it to win it.

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